By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
With all the training tools at your disposal, none are as easy to use or as convenient as dumbbells. You can assemble a home gym set-up with just a couple of adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench, and get a perfectly good workout without fighting the crowds at the gym — or plunking down several hundred dollars for a membership. Dumbbells have some unique traits that other kinds of weight-training equipment don’t offer, so compiling an all-dumbbell workout is not only a great challenge for beginning lifters but also a solid go-to change of pace for more advanced trainees.
This month we show you how to do a complete upper-body workout with nothing more than a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable bench. When choosing exercises for larger muscle groups such as chest, back and shoulders, it’s important to select multijoint or compound moves. These engage more than a single pair of joints and thus recruit more muscle tissue. You can also move more weight than with single-joint movements, which is necessary if your goal is to build big muscles.
The Dumbbell Advantage
1) Balance required.
Using dumbbells automatically forces every target muscle as well as every synergistic or assistance muscle that surrounds it to engage. With more muscles being called upon to perform each exercise, you actually work harder even though you may sacrifice the amount of weight you can lift. Be sure to complete a thorough, progressive warm-up to ready yourself for the working sets and reduce your risk of injury.
2) Perfect symmetry.
With both arms forced to work independently, you’ll immediately detect imbalances between the two. Be prepared to train your weaknesses, which will help you maintain good overall symmetry.
3) Longer range of motion.
When lifting a barbell, it simply goes up, the same as with most machines that are locked in a predetermined pathway. But with dumbbells, you can move in more than a single plane, which often means you can use a longer range of motion for better overall muscular development.
Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout
One-Arm Dumbbell Row (Lower lats) 4 Sets x 6, 6, 10, 10 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press (Pecs) 4 Sets x 6, 6, 10, 10 Reps
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press (All three delt heads) 4 Sets x 8, 8, 12, 12 Reps
Dumbbell Shrug (Upper traps) 3 Sets x 8, 8, 8 Reps
Seated One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension (Triceps long head) 2 Sets x 10, 10 Reps
Alternating Dumbbell Curl (Both biceps heads) 2 Sets x 10, 10 Reps
Dumbbell Wrist Curl (Brachioradialis) 2 Sets x 12, 12 Reps
* Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
* Select a weight that causes you to fail in the designated rep range.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Training one arm at a time with this move proves unparalleled for growth. Because you can use a little body english, you can actually recruit more muscle fibers and generate more force than when using both arms simultaneously in the barbell bent-over version.
Do it Right:
Lean forward at the waist, and place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench. Keep your other foot on the floor beside the bench and grasp a dumbbell in the same-side hand, allowing the weight to hang straight down with your arm fully extended. Pull the weight toward your hip, keeping your elbow in close. Pull your elbow as far back as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades together for a full contraction, then lower the dumbbell along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
A common mistake is to bring the dumbbell straight up to the shoulder. However, the best line of pull is up and back toward your hip. That provides a greater range of motion and time under tension for the stubborn lower lats.
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
This multijoint chest exercise is a proven mass-builder. Although you’ll quickly discover if one side of your pecs is stronger than the other, you get a longer range of motion over the barbell version because you can press both up and in rather than just up.
Do it Right:
Lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Powerfully press the weights up and together, stopping when they’re an inch or so away from touching. Slowly return to the start.
Don’t let the dumbbells touch at the top, because you’ll release tension on the pecs and start getting into the habit of resting briefly at the top of each rep. Leave a few inches between the weights so your pecs don’t get a chance to relax.
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press
Because you don’t have a bar in your hands, you can draw your elbows all the way back outside your ears. That places more emphasis on the middle delts, the one delt head that makes you appear wider. In contrast, with a barbell your elbows have to travel forward so the bar clears your face, calling upon more front delts than middle delts.
Do it Right:
Adjust the bench so your back is fully supported and upright, and grasp a dumbbell in each hand above shoulder level with a pronated grip (palms facing forward). Strongly press the weights overhead in an arc, but don’t let them touch at the top. Lower under control back to the start.
Don’t stop the downward motion when your arms form 90-degree angles; instead, bring the dumbbells all the way down until your elbows point toward the floor and the weights are just above shoulder level. It’s safe for your shoulders, and you recruit more muscle fibers when using this greater range of motion.
The range of motion here is only a few inches. The up-and-down movement should be fluid and controlled, not explosive. Because you’re using dumbbells, the neutral (palms-in) grip helps keep your arms and shoulders in the most comfortable and safest position possible.
Do it Right:
Stand erect holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with your palms facing in. Keeping your chest up and abs tight, shrug your shoulders straight up toward the ceiling, squeezing your traps at the top. Slowly reverse the motion, letting the weights lower your shoulders as far as possible.
Avoid rolling your shoulders — it doesn’t engage the upper traps more successfully and can actually cause severe strain of the delicate rotator-cuff muscles. Keep the motion strictly up and down.
Seated One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension
With your arm overhead, you’ll better engage the largest and most dominant muscle on the back of the arm, the meaty long head of the triceps. That’s true no matter what kind of equipment you use — cable, barbell or dumbbell.
Do it Right:
Sit erect on an upright bench, feet flat on the floor. Grasp a dumbbell and hold it overhead at full arm extension. Bending only your elbow, lower the weight behind your head until your arm forms a 90-degree angle. Feel your triceps stretch, then press back up to full-arm extension and squeeze your tri’s hard at the top. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Try the two-arm version, too, but keep your elbows in tight. Allowing them to flare out wide reduces the muscular stress on the triceps.
Alternating Dumbbell Curl
Unlike the barbell curl, the alternating dumbbell curl allows you to perform what’s called supination at the top of each rep. Starting with a palms-in (neutral) grip, you can slowly turn your wrists as you approach the top of the move, and that twisting motion allows for a better peak contraction and overall growth.
Do it Right:
Stand erect holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Keeping your chest up and elbows in tight, curl one weight toward the same-side shoulder, turning your wrist up as you go. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top, then lower to the start. Repeat with the opposite arm.
Of all the ways to perform this movement wrong, the most common is to try to bring the weight as high as possible, which pulls your elbow away from your side. However, this recruits the front delts and lessens the isolation on the biceps. Keep those elbows back!
Dumbbell Wrist Curl
The wrist curl goes last, and that’s no accident. If you hit your forearms too early in your workout, they’ll fatigue and prevent you from maintaining a good grip when training larger muscles like the back and biceps. This puts those bodyparts at a disadvantage because they rely on the forearms to be fresh.
Do it Right:
Sit at the end of a bench with your forearms flat on it, and grasp a dumbbell in each hand with your palms up. Allow the weights to roll to your fingers, then use your wrists to curl the dumbbells back to the start.
For a greater range of motion and stretch on the brachioradialis, keep your thumb on the same side of the dumbbell handle as your fingers. This ensures that you fully engage as much of the lower forearm as possible.